In Abortion Fight, Ireland Caught in Euro Crosshairs

DUBLIN, Ireland — International pro-abortion lobbyists are taking direct aim at Catholic Ireland.

A case making its way through the European Court of Human Rights is aimed at undermining the Republic of Ireland's constitutional protection for the unborn and may lead to calls for legalized abortion in Ireland, pro-life advocates warn.

According to official court documents, an Irish woman known in court papers only as “D” is bringing the case. She became pregnant with twins in 2001. In early 2002 a test indicated that one unborn child had stopped developing at eight weeks, and that the second had a fatal chromosomal abnormality. “D” decided that she could not carry the pregnancy to term, and traveled to England for an abortion.

“D” is claiming that her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights have been infringed on a number of grounds, including that the lack of abortion in Ireland amounts to “inhuman and degrading” treatment and is a disproportionate interference with her private and family life.

The Irish abortion issue has a long and complicated history spanning two decades.

A constitutional referendum in 1983 inserted wording into Ireland's Constitution that sought to give equal legal protection to both mothers and unborn children. This was universally understood to guarantee legal protection for the unborn and ensure that abortion could not be introduced without a further referendum of the people.

However, in a surprising Supreme Court judgment in 1992 known as the X Case, it was held that a 14-year-old girl who was suicidal was entitled to an abortion in Ireland. The ruling had potentially far-reaching legal consequences.

There were two efforts to amend the constitution to limit the effects of the 1992 court case. They were defeated in national referendums in 1992 and 2002. The 1992 amendment was rejected mainly because it would have created an explicit, albeit limited, right to abortion in the Constitution. The 2002 wording was rejected because the Irish pro-life movement split over the implications of the proposed constitutional wording.

Consequently, the 1992 Supreme Court judgment still represents the official legal position. However, abortion is not peformed in Ireland due to the practical difficulties — and political unpopularity — of introducing legislation to put the court's judgment into effect.

Indirect Attack

The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the official European Union's legal infrastructure and currently has no direct legal role in Ireland. Sinead Gleeson, a faculty member of the School of Law in Dublin's Trinity College, said that there is “no onus on the Irish government to give effect to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. In one case where Ireland was found to be in breach of the convention, the government simply ignored the issue for 10 years.”

However, a change to the law in 2003 meant that the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into Irish law, and that Irish citizens can now seek to enforce their rights under the convention in Irish courts.

“This means that the judgment in the D Case might have to be considered by Irish judges in Irish courts if a similar case came before them,” Gleeson said. “It is still unclear what weight such a decision would have, especially if it conflicted with Irish constitutional law.”

To date, the European Court of Human Rights has refused to rule on the right to life of the unborn in any cases that have appeared before it.

The Irish Family Planning Association, an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, is backing the D Case and three similar upcoming cases. In a statement, the association praised “the brave step taken by the woman at the center of the D case” and argued that Ireland's status quo on abortion was no longer tenable.

Said the statement, “Over a decade after the X Case, we still do not have basic legislation giving a sound statutory basis to that judgment. It is time for the political establishment to recognize the reality of abortion for thousands of Irish women, and to respond in a humane and rational manner.”

The first stage for the European Court of Human Rights is to decide if the case is admissible. If so, a judgment is expected within a year.

‘Typical’ Tactic

Ireland's Pro-Life Campaign sees the D Case as only the start of a renewed push for legal abortion in Ireland, and says it is typical of the tactics that are used to introduce abortion in other pro-life countries.

Pro-Life Campaign spokesman John Smyth said that the D Case was “motivated more by a desire to embarrass Ireland on the international stage than out of any real expectation that the court will rule in its favor.”

Smyth said that the Irish Family Planning Association was hoping to use both judicial activism and the power of international institutions to pursue its agenda.

“We have seen tactics like this in the attempts to create a ‘universal right to abortion’ at U.N. conferences,” he said. “It seems to be a tactic that is used when abortion cannot be introduced using other means, especially when public opinion remains pro-life as in Ireland.”

The Pro-Life Campaign has been granted leave to make a submission to the Court of Human Rights in defense of the unborn. Pro-Life Campaign Education Officer Dr. Ruth Cullen said that pro-lifers “do not accept that D's rights were contravened by Ireland's prohibition on abortion. If abortion were permitted on grounds of disability, it would dramatically alter Ireland's ethos of care for its weakest members.”

Added Cullen, “The right to life is the most basic right of all. Everybody by virtue of their dignity deserves to have this right vindicated.”

Patrick Kenny writes from Dublin, Ireland.